The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans don’t have a women problem. They have a single women problem.

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Conventional political wisdom goes like this: Republicans have a "woman" problem. That is, the party and its candidates are struggling mightily to convince female voters that the GOP is a home for them due to policies on abortion and contraception -- as well as comments during the 2012 election about rape -- that suggest the opposite.

That's only part of the story, however, as illustrated by the result in the Virginia governor's race on Tuesday. The real problem for Republicans going forward is not women broadly but single women in particular.

Governor-elect Terry McAuliffe spent most of his campaign time -- and money -- casting Ken Cuccinelli as a zealot on social issues like abortion and contraception in the just-concluded Virginia race. Watch this ad to get a sense of McAuliffe's messaging:

There were poll numbers floating around in the days leading up to the election that suggested McAuliffe would absolutely swamp Cuccinelli among female voters and, in so doing, win a convincing victory.  But, according to exit polls, Cuccinelli only lost female voters by nine points -- identical to the losing margin for Mitt Romney among women in Virginia in the 2012 presidential election. (Romney lost women nationally by 11 points to President Obama in 2012.)

Where Cuccinelli did get swamped, however, was among non-married women where he lost by a massive 42-point(!) margin, according to preliminary exit polling. While Romney didn't fare that poorly in 2012, his 29-point loss among non-married women in Virginia was more than double his losing margin among women more broadly in the Commonwealth.

Here's the two-pronged problem for Republicans: 1) They aren't winning married women by nearly enough to make up for their huge deficits among unmarried women and 2) There aren't that many more married women than single women in the electorate to make up the margins.

So, the fact that married women accounted for 35 percent of the overall electorate and Cuccinelli won them by nine points was more than offset by the fact that single women comprised 18 percent of the electorate and he lost them by six touchdowns.

(Worth noting: The married/unmarried divide isn't just among women.  Cuccinelli won married men by six points but lost single men by 25.)

It's difficult to develop much of a trend line on non-married women since respondents were not asked about marital status in the 2009 Virginia exit poll.

But, it's clear from the Virginia data -- as well as the 2012 presidential results -- that Republicans must find a way to lose single women by a far less wide margin if they want to close a gender gap that it making it increasingly difficult for them to be a majority party nationally in presidential elections.